Azerbaijani voters go to the polls on November 1 for parliamentary elections boycotted by Europe's largest monitoring agency as well as by all of the tightly controlled South Caucasus country's established opposition parties.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) refused to send monitors after Baku sought to limit their number to a core team of 131 long- and short-term observers.
That is about one-third the number of monitors that the OSCE felt was necessary to do its work. OSCE assessment of an election as fair or fraudulent is widely recognized as a sign of how much democracy exists in a country.
Some other international observers, including from the Commonwealth of Independent states (CIS) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), will monitor the elections in the former Soviet republic.
Separately, Azerbaijan's established opposition parties have refused to participate in the elections, though some individual opposition candidates are running for spots in the 125-seat parliament, which is dominated by President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP).
The established opposition parties said that the government's policy of offering free television air time to the ruling party, but requiring that all others pay commercial rates, made it unaffordable for them to campaign and reach a wide audience.
‘Never Been Worse’
The election takes place amid a sustained two-year crackdown on opposition groups, human rights activists, and independent journalists that has decimated Azerbaijani civil society in the past two years.
“Things have really never been worse," said Rebecca Vincent, a former U.S. diplomat who is coordinator of Sports for Rights, an international campaign drawing attention to human rights violations in oil-rich Azerbaijan, which sought to improve its image by holding the first-ever European Games in June.
"This election is taking place with no credible international observers," she notes. "[Established] opposition groups are not participating, you have got a main opposition leader sitting in jail, and you have got the country's top [independent] election monitor sitting in jail."
An umbrella organization uniting part of Azerbaijan's opposition forces -- the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) -- announced on September 10 that it would boycott the parliamentary elections. The NCDF blamed what it termed the government's failure to create the necessary conditions for the conduct of free-and-fair elections.
The Republican Alternative (REAL) Movement, whose leader, Ilgar Mammadov, is in jail, stated on October 27 that the results of the elections would be meaningless given the overall election environment.
Musavat and the Popular Front also said in recent days they would boycott the election and would not recognize the poll results.
One measure of the restrictive election environment is the fact that Azerbaijani citizens have no way of independently monitoring the balloting themselves.
The head of the country's best-known independent election monitoring group, Anar Mammadi, has been in jail on a five-year sentence since 2014 after saying that the 2013 presidential election, which officially gave the incumbent, Aliyev, 85 percent of the vote, could not count as free and democratic.
Azerbaijan has been ruled by the Aliyev family since two years after the 1991 Soviet breakup, and the governing elite has never left much space for political or economic rivals.
The regime established by Ilham Aliyev's father, Heydar, in 1993 monopolized the country's oil wealth and created a patronage-based system of rule that passed intact to his son, whom he steered into the presidency shortly before his death in 2003.
To hold a government position requires being a member of the ruling party, television is state controlled, and opposition leaders have long been subject to arrest on dubious charges and other forms of intimidation.
Jailed rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus are reportedly in declining health in prison.
But over the past two years, room for criticizing the government has shrunk ever further. A wave of arrests has targeted opposition bloggers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Among the best-known are investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison in September on charges that rights groups have called retribution for her reports on corruption involving senior government officials, and jailed human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus.
At the same time, Azerbaijani election authorities have made it all but impossible for opposition parties to air their messages during campaign seasons on state television. Changes to the election code have restricted free air time to only parties fielding candidates in 60 percent of the races for legislative seats, a requirement only the ruling YAP meets.
Analysts say the crackdown has made the outcome of the parliamentary elections a foregone conclusion. The parliament, which is subordinate to the executive branch of the government and has little authority of its own, will remain overwhelmingly dominated by YAP and nominally independent deputies allied with it.
"The chances of a fair-and-free election were eliminated long before election day," says Vincent. "So in that regard, it doesn't really matter what happens this weekend. It is predecided. Why this election really matters is that it is the culmination of President Aliyev's and his regime's efforts to consolidate power since his election to a third term in office in October 2013."
Aliyev was elected to a third term in 2013 after abolishing a previous two-term limit on a president's time in office. The election sparked widespread criticism by international and domestic advocates of democracy because Aliyev eliminated the term restriction with a constitutional referendum in 2009 that allows himself to now run as many times as he wants -- potentially making him president for life.
Aliyev, whose mostly Muslim country has been courted by the United States and Europe because of its energy reserves and strategic location in an area between Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia, has repeatedly shrugged off Western criticism of its rights record.
The 53-year-old president fully dominates the country's political life, with state media focusing far more on his activities than upon the upcoming election. Coverage in recent weeks has centered on Aliyev's dismissal of the minister of National Security, Eldar Mahmudov, and other ministry officials on charges of exceeding their authority and illegal interference in business. The purge is widely viewed as the outcome of a power dispute within the highly secretive ruling elite.